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Posted on Monday 11 February 2013 at 1:08 pm

Academic Posts of Doom 1 of 3: Research Interests

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When I told people to interview me, there were lots of questions about my dissertation and my academic career more broadly. Looking over the questions, I think there are three main topics I should cover in three separate LJ posts: my primary research interest, including how and why I got interested in it; the dissertation, including the basics of the topic, where I'm at on it, my immediate plans, etc.; and my broad career goals and other areas of interest. First up: my primary area of historical interest and how I got interested in it. Fair warning: this is kind of long. But it is important to me.

History as a profession is most frequently defined by chronological and geographic boundaries. You can study Medieval Spain or Qing Dynasty China, for example. I somewhat hate that and prefer to identify myself based on my thematic or topical interests. My primary interest as a historian is political culture, especially in regard to social protest movements. Slightly more broadly, I'm into group identity formation and group rights talk (Women's Rights, Gay Rights, The Civil Rights Movement, etc.). I am also supremely interested in civil rights and civil liberties around the world today and consider myself an activist for various groups with which I identify personally, try to be an ally (and activist?) for the rights and equality of groups of which I'm not a part, and am fascinated by the whole concept of group rights versus individual rights. Despite my preference for topic over geography and chronology, it is impossible to study everywhere and everywhen and the rest of the profession does define itself by time and place so I do that as well. Somewhat oddly given my topical interest, I am chronologically and geographically an Early Americanist. I study the colonial through Early Republic periods (typically defined as beginning of time to 1815). I like the Founding period the best - the American Revolution, the writing of the Constitution, and the first few national governments - but my dissertation is actually earlier in the colonial period, focusing on a small revolt in New York in the late 1680s and early 1690s. How exactly that happened I'll explain in a later dissertation specific post.

There's a song written by Stephen Stills, originally performed by the group Buffalo Springfield of which he was a member at the time, called For What It's Worth. I really like this song. I always have. In fact, when I was in late third grade or early fourth grade, when I was about nine years old, I liked this song. I thought it just sounded cool. One day I was walking in the halls of my elementary school with some of my friends, and I was singing For What It's Worth. I doubt most elementary school kids in 1991 were singing songs from the mid '60s, but we all know I'm a bit odd. The school counselor, Mr. Bradshaw, heard me singing and asked me if I knew what that song was about. I said I didn't, I just thought it sounded cool. He arranged for me to come to his office so he could tell me about it. He told me it was a protest song, written about something that had happened at a place called Kent State in Ohio. He told me about the Vietnam War. He told me about antiwar protests. He told me about the Civil Rights movement. And he told me about the violent push back from the government. He told me about police using clubs, dogs, and fire hoses on unarmed protestors. He told me about armed soldiers opening fire on crowds of college students engaged in nonviolent protest at Kent State. I don't remember exactly what all he told me about the counterculture and the protests and violence of the '60s and '70s. I'm sure he left out the Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll bit. Well, at least the sex and drugs. Rock and Roll had to be part of our discussion since it was a protest song that started the conversation. I doubt he gave me all the terrible details, but he definitely told me about Kent State and that the song I had been singing was about those students killed by the United States Army.

It was years before I found out that Mr. B wasn't completely right. He certainly had the big picture right, but some of the details were wrong. For What It's Worth was written in 1967, three years before four protestors were killed by the Ohio National Guard opening fire on unarmed college students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State. For What It's Worth was a protest song, but it was about violence between club goers and police in California, nothing quite so violent or dramatic as Kent State. Stephen Stills is best known as part of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (sometimes and Young). The extended version of that group did release a protest song about Kent State, called Ohio and written by Neil Young. Mr. B is far from the only one to misremember For What It's Worth as being about Kent State. It's a fairly common mistake and the song is culturally closely associated with Kent State. I'm not sure any of the details really matter, though. What matters is that for some reason my elementary school counselor decided to tell me all about the Vietnam War protests and some of the other civil unrest of the '60s and '70s when I was NINE!

Looking back, there is a part of me that questions his decision, but I guess he thought I could handle it. As I said, I had been with a couple of my friends when he heard me singing in the hall, but I was the only one he had come to his office to hear the explanation. He and I had a fairly good relationship. It was in early third grade when I was tested for the gifted program. The testing included IQ tests, personality tests, evaluation by the counselor, etc. and he was present for a lot of that. I never was told my actual scores on the IQ tests, but my parents later told me that they were told the numbers, which they didn't remember, and were also told that the gifted program had an IQ range, if your score was between x and y, then you should be in the program. I technically outscored the program because my IQ came in above their top number. The gifted program at my elementary basically worked by pulling the gifted kids out of regular classes for 45 minutes every day for advanced math and science and other enrichment activities. Part of what they decided to do for me was just double the time, so I was in the gifted room for an hour and a half every day. On his own initiative, Mr. B also decided to start teaching me how to play chess so I was in his office for that a lot. I also met with him a few times for actual counseling, or maybe the conversations I sort of remember as actual counseling took place during the chess games, I'm not sure. In any event, I guess he had a pretty good idea of who I was and decided I could handle it for whatever reason.

Whatever his thought process, I'm glad he did it. It was so completely different from anything I'd ever heard before and it very slowly started me questioning what I was being taught. I had a friend ask me one time why I studied American history in particular and this was my short response: "I guess because as a kid I bought into the whole patriotic gung-ho America is the bestest myth stuff. And that got me hooked on studying American history. And the more I studied, the more I chipped away at the myths instilled by public grade school education (seriously? Washington didn't chop down a cherry tree?). And for some unknown reason, looking past the myths to the reality and then trying to understand how the myths were created fascinated me more than the myths ever did. And I think it is incredibly important for our future that we keep chipping away at the myths." Mr. B's explanation of that one song really is the thing that started the chipping away and is what helped direct me away from general Americana to political culture and protests movements in particular. For me, it really is that I love the ideals of America, the principles enshrined in the constitution and the values for which she claims to stand. I also realize we as a nation have seldom if ever lived up to those ideals. But there have always been people pushing for it, demanding the government and the rest of society acknowledge the discrepancies, the hypocrisy, and live up to the ideal rather than just voice it, claim it. Or at least people keep fighting to try to get us a little bit closer since I'm not sure ideals can ever be fully realized. That's what I love: the specific aspect of political culture about protests, about demanding government and society live up to its ideals, the forms that took, how the ideals have been redefined and changed over time, etc.

Of course, I realize this isn't a uniquely American thing and I'm not just interested in that. Other nations have their own ideals and bedrock principles, sometimes similar and sometimes very different from those of the US. And perhaps there are some things all of humanity can someday agree upon as universal rights. Everyone has their own history of people pushing, demanding, and we have modern struggles all around the world. I'm interested in all of that, too. I'm certainly very vocal and politically active as to what I see are the problems of today, the ways we still fail to live up to the ideals. I just happen to be most interested in the history of America and to have a love of the ideals of America as a personal thing. It all goes back to that moment with Mr. Bradshaw in elementary school when I realized that what I had been taught as fact about America, liberty and justice for all forever and ever amen, wasn't fact. That the past was way more complicated than that and there were parts of the story that had been concealed from me thus far. It mattered and still does matter to me that America had failed to live up the dream, but that there have always been people willing to call America out on its failure and to demand the something better, and those people sometimes wrote some pretty awesome songs. :)

Of course, it isn't like I became a professional historian and political activist overnight at the age of nine. It was a slow process and it is only looking back that I see the impact this one moment had on me. But now that I do see it, I can't help but wonder about Mr. B. Did he have any clue what he was creating the day he decided to tell me the story behind For What It's Worth (it doesn't matter if he got the details wrong)? What did he see in me that made him think I, at the age of nine, was capable of handling the truth about some of the darker aspects of my nation's history? What would he think of me now?

The song that started it all. I love this video of it because of the way they goof off all the way through to clearly show that they are lip syncing and not actually playing the instruments (they get the most obvious towards the end, starting with Neil Young throwing up his hands during his guitar solo at about 1:37 followed by the throwing of drum sticks).


Wine gums, envy, pieces of rainbow
qwentoozla at 6:55 am on 12 February 2013 (UTC) (Link)
That was really interesting to read! It's cool that your whole area of interest sort of came from that teacher deciding to talk to you about the history of that song. I'm not a big fan of Buffalo Springfield in general, but I have always loved For What It's Worth too! :)
bratty_jedi at 11:56 pm on 12 February 2013 (UTC) (Link)
It really is odd the little things that shape us.

I don't pay too much attention to Buffalo Springfield after Stills and Young left so I can't really comment on the rest of the band's stuff.

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